I Have Gone Feral, and I’m Not Going Back

  • Shelsea Ochoa

In light of the dumpster fire known as 2020, I hereby declare myself feral. I have no interest in going back to the way things were when this is all over. Onward, I say! Onward, beyond these old structures! Onward, into the wild! I hereby liberate myself from the constraints of domestication. I strip my bondage and run naked into the forest.

In doing so, I begin a long journey back to myself.

I have lived a life of in-betweens. I grew up in a border town, crossing between two cultures. I am a mixed-race mutt. I have been confronted with prejudice and have chipped away at my own. I have had heteronormative relationships and queer ones. I have had good health insurance at times and have been on food stamps at others. To those of us who have been on both sides of the oppressed and oppressor game, it’s pretty damn clear that we should abandon this system.

Almost any young or marginalized person will tell you that things today are a mess. None of us can say that everything will be okay. In fact, I believe that some things will get worse. National elections feel hopeless; our planet is falling apart; and any moment you pause to catch your breath in the fight for social justice, hatred comes along to kick you back to square one. Plus, there’s a pandemic.

At the same time, opportunities for transformation are emerging all around us, and sometimes that gives me hope. I feel encouraged by the people creating change in my community. Our culture is buzzing with conversations about how to dismantle white supremacy and colonialism, and people are questioning all aspects of society, including themselves.

COVID-19 brought about a dramatic personal shift for me. I went from being a full-time performer and educator, surrounded by humans, to being home. Alone. All. Day. At first, the isolation was startling. For the first ten days of quarantine, I stared out the window, stunned. Then, I tried my hardest to be as busy as possible and to not let myself stop moving. I cleaned and organized everything. I took on unnecessary tasks. But eventually, I had to give in to the emptiness. I finally sank deep into my subconscious and pulled out some stale, expired feelings from within. Waves of emotion began pouring out of me, and with nothing to direct them at and no one to project them on, I felt them raw. The tensions of a life in the rat race were shedding away. I had been given the gift of taking a long, deep look within myself and clearing things out.

And then, I felt awake.

I began to notice extremely subtle sounds and patterns all around me. This was a first step into my feral nature: tuning back in with myself and with the present moment. I had been so preoccupied that I hadn’t even noticed how I was feeling in my day-to-day existence or the real details of what was happening around me.

During this time of self-reflection, someone on social media posted, “Why do I feel like I’m getting gayer during quarantine?” They hypothesized that being gay is their natural state, but when they have to operate within societal confines every day, there is a subconscious pressure to be more heteronormative. I think that speaks to many of our experiences. Everyone conforms to society in some way. Quarantine allows us to step outside of that pressure and really evaluate who we are. I began to ask myself little questions, such as: Why are shaved legs better than unshaved legs? For whom do I wear a bra? How much of my productivity comes from an insecure need to seem valuable? These little inquiries were an indication that I was loosening my grip on social norms, if even in the smallest of ways.

As I was “Marie Kondo-ing” various aspects of society, my own behaviors, and my beliefs, I found more and more things that did not, in the words of Marie Kondo, “spark joy.” Energetically, I had a lot to shed. But how would I release it? Enter: howling.

On March 27th, my partner Brice Maiurro and I started using social media to encourage people to go outside and howl at 8 p.m. This idea came without purpose, out of instinct. It wasn’t a statement; we just thought it would be cool if we could get some friends to howl. People latched onto the idea, and eventually we had over half a million people howling worldwide, from all different demographics. As the idea grew, we became witnesses to the purpose of howling.

Howling has a certain magic, in that it doesn’t inherently relate to a single group of people, and it doesn’t inherently express a single emotion. Therefore, at 8 p.m. every night, we created a collective cacophony of howling, a smorgasbord of feelings and intentions. People reported that they howled because they were fighting drug addiction, or because they were in love, or for the loss of a loved one, or in frustration or exuberance or joy or freedom. I think many people howled to feel less alone and to express a feeling that they couldn’t name. Many people grappled with a fear of howling and had to work up courage to disrupt the silence of their neighborhood, to allow their voices to take up space. Whatever people had inside, it was coming out! Howling was a release. Despite our containment, we as a society found a way to shed our energy and tap into our feral natures.

And at the apex of this moment, when we were all in a space of reflection and reclaiming, the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd jolted the nation, and we rushed to the streets as if racist murders by the police were anything new. Howling was replaced by the sounds of sirens, shouting, and pepper bullets. For me, jumping into the protests was a knee-jerk reaction. Along with many others, I found myself with guns pointed at me, officers yelling, tear gas in my lungs and eyes. I found myself narrowly dodging an explosive can that a police officer had thrown in my direction, which might have given me permanent brain damage if it had landed a few feet closer. I found myself caring for people who were badly injured by the police. I found myself in a crowd that was chanting in fury, then running in fear. This, of course, was nothing compared to the police brutality that has been experienced over time by so many Black people in this country.

Then, suddenly, as quickly as the violence had started, it stopped. The police stopped showing up at protests altogether. Once they were no longer teargassing crowds and shooting pepper bullets at us, the protests became suddenly peaceful, and the contrast of it all felt absurd. It was like the moment when Toto pulled back the curtain to reveal the real Wizard of Oz. Our own curtain revealed that the police violence inflicted to contain the protests had never been necessary in the first place. They were not protecting anyone. The irony of that, paired with our purpose for protesting, was not lost on anyone. I went home feeling disturbed and disillusioned: the institutions that I had been raised to think I needed had been used against the people whom they claimed to serve.

2020 has been ablaze with protests across the country and around the world. In the face of such blatant acts of hatred as the murder of Elijah McClain, many white people who were once afraid to ruffle the feathers of the racist people around them have finally shown up in solidarity against racism for the first time. Given the options of quietly participating in a broken system or making other people uncomfortable, even those who benefit from our broken system are finally choosing the latter. And they have begun to acknowledge the effects of structural racism in themselves. It’s messy and imperfect, but these are good first steps.

In early June 2020, I posted a simple question on the “Go Outside and Howl at 8 p.m.” social media page: “How are you feeling?” People from all over the country responded. Here are some of the hundreds of comments the post received:

  • Mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted.
  • Defeated.
  • Depressed and tired.
  • Mad as hell.
  • Overwhelmed. Seeing the true colors of people I’m supposed to like and respect and I feel foolish and sad and a little pissed, too.
  • So stressed I can’t sleep, because I just have nightmares when I do.
  • SAD. Exhausted. Unmotivated. Stressed. I’m supposed to graduate with my AA on the 20th but I can’t get work done.
  • Empty.

I had to take a moment to grieve over the depth and range of these responses. As we all confront racism within ourselves, our families, and our communities, it hurts, and it is hard. But we are finally letting it out and dealing with it. And out of all of this darkness, there are some real changes happening in policy. As I write this, new protocols are being created to combat police brutality in the United States.

2020 has shown me, more than ever, that the system is not working for us; rather, we are working for the system. And it is so often the people who work the hardest (essential workers such as construction workers, bus drivers, medical staff, etc.), who benefit the least. So now is a time for envisioning a new way of life, and we have a great example set for us by the Black Lives Matter movement.

As for me, I have already wasted enough of my time trying to fit into this tired-ass, dehumanizing, colonizer-centric system. I am now going through a process of molting, of shedding my miseducation. I don’t want 2020 to have been for nothing. I want to remember it all.

I want to continue interrogating myself to find ways that I can dismantle the broken systems within me and my communities. I want to continue “Marie Kondo-ing” all my little socially-constructed behaviors. I want to decolonize my mind. For the foreseeable future, I will be searching for some version of myself that precedes the systems of oppression to which I have been shaped, so that I can be that true self and don’t have to live off of the pain of others.

So, I will run naked into the forest. I will declare myself feral, and if that makes me ugly, uncomfortable, unprofessional, or disturbing to society at large, so be it. We have so much to throw into the wreckage of 2020, and so much to gain by letting it burn. This is our chance to undergo a metamorphosis into ferality, in hopes of finding our way back to ourselves. There is simply no humanizing way to go back to the way things were.

I’ll see you on the other side: naked, howling, and free.

On August 30, 2020, Shelsea Ochoa and her partner Brice Maiurro walked from opposite ends of Colfax, the longest road in the U.S., to meet in the middle. Shelsea created a video of her walk, and paired it with audio of herself reading an expanded version of this essay. Music credit: Tanis Bentley-Brown.